Shiny Happy People

According to Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is “the uncomfortable tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time.”

The Newsweek article ”Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” summarizes the work of several psychologists in the relatively new school of thought, Positive Psychology, while comparing economic achievement with rates of happiness. The conclusion sent my cognitive dissonance rate off the charts.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book “Stumbling On Happiness” argues that money improves your outlook when it lifts you out of poverty into the middle class, but that marginal increases after that point do little to improve your outlook. The argument is that the new Maytag means more to the person forced to use a washboard or a rock down by the river, than to the suburbanite upgrading to a newer model.

In their study ”Beyond Money”professors Ed Diener of Illinois and Martin E.P. Seligman of Penn argue that while traditional economic measures of personal economic status have been steadily improving throughout the developed world, surveys of personal satisfaction have remained flat or even declined. They further argue that corporations and government agencies should focus their policies so they can improve the things that do increase a person’s sense of well-being: personal autonomy, social relationships and the enjoyment derived from work.

However, the cognitive dissonance kicks in when the argument is moved from a more microeconomic level focusing on the state of the individual to a more macroeconomic level, focusing on the state of the economy. The article quotes Gilbert again: “economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will strive only for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.”

So please, work extra hard so you can buy the new iPhone. You risk ever achieving your own true happiness, but you will help improve the bottom line of U.S.A., Inc. This in turn will drag more people out of abject poverty and throw them into the pool of middle class ennui, self-doubt and existential angst. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your therapy bills!”

Update: Martin E.P. Seligman is considered a demi-god in the new science of happiness. He was also the lead faculty resident at the College House I lived in at Penn from 1981-1983. We always speculated what the E.P. stood for, but his gruff manner and unwillingness to mix with the students (unless they were young and attractive female teaching assistants) led to the most popular theory: Martin Enormous Penis Seligman. His ego was such that he would have taken this as a compliment. I guess he was very happy.

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